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‘Sisu’ 4K UHD (review)

Let’s get one thing straight, right out of the chute: Sisu is absolutely notJohn Wick with Nazis” as I have heard breathlessly proclaimed by a horde of commentators.

If Sisu bears comparison to any recent picture it probably most resembles the fine Irish spaghetti western homage Black ‘47 made in 2018 by Lance Daly. Both films use the framework of American revenge thrillers (First Blood in particular) to work through a kind of national historical trauma in cinematic terms.

John Wick is not about the soul-erosion of revenge and war, its revenge plot is hilariously perfunctory nonsense to justify a series of bombastic action set pieces that celebrate, as Hong Kong action cinema so often does, the joy of motion, action, and beautiful violence. As this critique has begun by stating emphatically what Sisu is not, it may behoove us to quickly state what it, in fact, is.

Sisu is an action thriller set during late 1944 in northern Finland. Finland had been victimized by the Soviet Union in the Winter War and had joined the Axis after Operation Barbarossa out of geopolitical necessity. After Stalingrad, when the war turned decisively in favor of the Soviets, they signed a separate peace with Finland, the terms of which necessitated all German troops leave the Lappland, which forms the northwestern border of the Soviet Union.

Sisu is the story of an elite Finnish commando working in the remote regions of the Lappland as a prospector whose gold strike is seized by a retreating Nazi death squad and who plays a cat-and-mouse game with the SS officer in charge of the unit who sees the gold as his means of evading war crimes prosecution after the war.

Jorma Tommila plays the commando, Aatami Korpi, with a mix of complete weariness and indomitable stoicism and Aksel Hennie portrays SS Commander Bruno Helldorf as man whose pleasure in doing violence is only dulled by the realization that the war must end, and soon.

Sisu is a preposterous film, and not altogether in a good way.

It cannot decide whether it is action schlock, or it has something to say and that’s always a dangerous combination. This is a film where our hero is surprised by his opponents and throws the dogs off his scent by dousing himself in gasoline and setting himself on fire, and then running into a nearby lake. He keeps himself alive in the lake by slitting the throats of the German soldiers who dive in after his gold, and sucking the air escaping from their cut tracheas. This scene is equidistant between two innocent Finnish women being used as minesweepers by the Nazis and the hero finding the local town completely destroyed for no reason, which are both played with deadly seriousness. You’re either ridiculous pulp schlock and having fun with it, or you’re a serious revenge movie about the historical excesses of the Nazis as they escape Finland, you ought not be both at the same time.

Director Jalmari Helander came to everyone’s attention for the grisly, funny, and brilliant Christmas horror film Rare Exports and Sisu was his COVID project, a small-scale but high-concept film that could be finished quickly and cheaply and didn’t need too much elaborate multi-camera work. I have no complaints about production quality or professionalism on any front in this film. It feels like a well made European film, and the relatively small budget is hidden by the excellent location work– natural beauty once again eclipses any work that can be done on a computer.

My lone complaint is with the script, which is ridiculous to a degree that the producers of a Jean-Claude Van Damme would order a rewrite. There’s an escape from a hanging that I would find ridiculous if it occurred in a James Bond or Batman film. The makers of an entertaining action movie would see the problem instantly and correct it, but ironically filmmakers who think they’re doing something important, allegorical would allow these rapid tonal shifts and ridiculous escapes.

It recalls Raymond Chandler’s famous assessment of Murder on the Orient Express and its solution: “the kind of thing that would throw a first rate mind for a loop, because any idiot could guess it”.

Extras include a making of and featurette.

I’m not one for negativity for its own sake, but Sisu is stuck between ridiculous Tarantino homage and war time mourning– it’s like someone break dancing in front of the Vietnam War Memorial.

Not recommended.


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